Bill to mandate visa interviews

International students wishing to obtain a visa will remain subject to in-person interviews as a result of intelligence reform legislation passed by Congress in December. The bill, while largely focused on security and intelligence policy, contains a small provision that forbids the State Department from granting visas without interviewing individual applicants, with a few exemptions for diplomats and members of international organizations, such as NATO.

The passage of the added visa clause came a month after new studies showed that international student enrollment in U.S. universities had reached historic lows in recent years and is steadily diminishing. According to a November report released by the Council of Graduate Schools, the number of first-time international graduate students in the nation decreased between 6 and 10 percent for three consecutive years.

The study also found that total international graduate student enrollment — including first-time and continuing students — decreased by 3 percent, compared with a 1- to 2-percent decrease of domestic graduate students.

The report also noted that many students are dissuaded from studying in the United States because of the stringent visa requirements and a process that is often plagued with delays. In an attempt to reverse the declining enrollment trend and make the country more appealing to academics from overseas, higher education advocates have been lobbying the State Department to offer certain interview exemptions to students and scholars applying for visas. Though the department had originally said it was unlikely to do so, the new law takes the decision out of its hands.

In a statement, the Association of International Educators said it was disappointed with the visa stipulation in the intelligence overhaul package.

“The provision, which is even more restrictive than the original State Department [practice], constitutes a setback for the efforts of [our group] and colleague associations to ease post-9/11 visa requirements to facilitate the entry of legitimate visitors to the United States,” the organization stated.

Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Maura Harty disagreed that a delay in the issuance of visas poses a major problem for international students. In an editorial appearing in the Chronicle of Hiher Education, Harty stated that most student applicants receive visa appointments within one week — some receive them the next day if requested. In addition, new reforms in the process used to run applicant security checks have reduced previous problems and provide greater accountability, she stated.

“The loss of even one qualified student to another nation is one too many,” Harty stated. “When a student goes elsewhere … we have lost the chance for a student to see the wonders of America through his or her own eyes, rather than through the prism of a foreign news media outlet that may be biased. A young person’s positive experience in America strengthens and enriches our nation [and] we are informed every day in what we do by our desire to welcome those students to our shores.”

CGS Director of Research and Policy Analysis Heath Brown said he recognized the balance between the need for reforms in the visa process and proper security.

“The problem has been that the bureaucratic process has been too delayed,” Brown said. “We would like to see continued improvement in reducing delays while adhering to other security needs. However, we do need a process that has enough security checks so students who might not have good intentions are caught.”

Holding individual interviews with every visa applicant also opens the door to ethnic profiling, which may result in backlogs, as consulates try to keep up with demand, according to Associate Director of UCSD International Center Michael Hindi. Without profiling, it would be impossible for officials to process all of the required applications, he said.

“It seems to me that burying an issue that is so important to universities in this intelligence reform bill was a way to get this done quietly, without providing universities the opportunity to have their say,” Hindi stated in an e-mail. “I think that many voices in the U.S. Department of State, even if they were given adequate resources, would argue that they should be left a bit more discretion to decide when to call visa applicants in for an interview.”

UCSD is fourth in the nation among institutions bringing in international professors and researchers, according to Hindi. In 2003-04, its 1,949 international scholars outnumbered the campus’ 1,811 international students.

The visa requirements in the bill will likely have negative effects on universities involved in international research, he said.

“Without question, the provision in the intelligence reform bill will continue to plague the researchers who travel frequently, and their families,” Hindi stated. “In addition, it will likely continue to cost the university a very large sum of money in the delays that will be imposed on research units.”

In addition to security fears, lawmakers must consider the benefits international students offer to the country, he explained.

“Although we cannot argue that we should be less security-minded, we can argue that thinking in purely security terms is not always the best approach for international education,” Hindi stated. “People who learn together and learn to respect each other end up doing business together.”